Coconuts and coconut oil contain health-promoting saturated fatty acids and derivative compounds which have powerful antimicrobial properties.
Coconuts are native to Asia and grow in most tropical areas of the world. Coconuts came to Florida in 1840, when a ship transporting coconuts sank off the coast and the nuts washed ashore and began to grow along the beaches. Coconut oil is traditionally used for cooking, frying and flavoring of foods. Coconut oil liquefies at body temperature. It leaves no harmful cholesterol in the blood, and it keeps blood flowing freely. It is one of the easiest fats to digest. It is recommended by doctors in the tropics to people that have problems digesting fats.
Coconuts play a unique role in the diets of mankind because they are the source of important physiologically functional components. These physiologically functional components are found in the fat part of the whole coconut, in the fat part of desiccated coconut, and in the extracted coconut oil. When it is eaten, coconut has fatty acids that provide both energy (nutrients) and the raw material for anti-microbial fatty acids and mono-glycerides (functional components). Desiccated coconut is about 69% coconut fat, as is creamed coconut. Full coconut milk is approximately 24% fat.
Obesity, a major health problem in the United States, has been the subject of much research. Several lines of research dealing with metabolic effects of high-fat diets have been followed. One study used coconut oil to enrich a high-fat diet and the results reported were that the "coconut oil-enriched diet is effective in...[producing]...a decrease in white fat stores.
The research from over four decades concerning coconut oil in the diet and heart disease is quite clear: coconut oil has been shown to be beneficial in combating/reducing the risk factors in heart disease. This research lead us to ask the question, "Should coconut oil be used both to prevent and treat coronary heart disease?" This is based on several reviews of the scientific literature concerning the feeding of coconut oil to humans. Some of the epidemiological and experimental data reviewed regarding coconut-eating groups noted that the "available population studies show that dietary coconut oil does not lead to high serum cholesterol nor to high coronary heart disease mortality or morbidity".
Clearly, there has been increasing recognition of the health-supporting functions of the fatty acids found in coconut. One of the major health challenges facing coconut oil was based on a supposed negative role played by saturated fat in heart disease. In spite of what has been said over the past four or more decades about the culpability of the saturated fatty acids in heart disease, more and more research is showing the problem to be related to oxidized products. The naturally saturated fats such as coconut oil are one protection we have against oxidized products. There are some surprisingly beneficial effects of the special saturates found in coconut oil as they compare with those of the unsaturates found in some of the other food oils.
Recently published research has shown that natural coconut fat in the diet leads to a normalization of body lipids, protects against alcohol damage to the liver and improves the immune system's anti-inflammatory response. The properties that determine the anti-infective action of lipids are related to their structure, that is monoglycerides or free fatty acids. The monoglycerides are active whereas diglycerides and triglycerides are inactive. Of the saturated fatty acids, lauric acid has the greater antiviral activity (C-6) than caprylic acid (C-8), capric acid (C-10) or myristic acid (C-14).
Approximately 50% of the fatty acids in coconut fat are lauric acid. Lauric acid is known for its unique uses in the manufacture of soaps and cosmetics. More recently, lauric acid has been recognized for its unique properties in food use, which are related to its antiviral, antibacterial and antiprotozoal functions. Lauric acid is a medium-chain fatty acid which has an additional beneficial function of being formed into monolaurin in the human body. Monolaurin is the anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-protozoal monoglyceride used by the human body to destroy lipid-coated viruses such as HIV, herpes, cytomegalovirus, influenza, various pathogenic bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes and Helicobacter pylori, and protozoa such as Giardia lamblia.
Approximately 6-7% of the fatty acids in coconut fat are capric acid. Capric acid is another medium-chain fatty acid that has a similar beneficial function when it is formed into monocaprin in the human body. Monocaprin has also been shown to have anti-viral effects against HIV, and is currently being tested for its anti-viral effects against herpes simplex and its anti-bacterial effects against Chlamydia and other sexually transmitted bacteria.
It has been reported that certain fatty acids and their derivatives (monoglycerides) can have adverse effects on various micro-organisms. Those micro-organisms that are inactivated include bacteria, yeast, fungi and enveloped viruses. Additionally it is reported that the antimicrobial effects of fatty acids and monoglycerides are additive and their total concentration is critical for inactivating viruses.
Recognition of the antiviral aspects, in the antimicrobial activity of monoglycerides with respect to lauric acid (monolaurin), has been reported since 1966. Some of the viruses inactivated by these lipids, in additional to HIV, are the measles virus, herpes simplex virus-1 (HS-1), vesticular stomatitis (VSV), visna virus and cytomegalovirus (CMV). Many of the pathogenic microorganisms reported to be inactivated by these antimicrobial lipids are those known to be responsible for opportunistic infections in HIV-positive individual. For example, concurrent infection with cytomegalovirus is recognized as a serious complication for HIV-positive individuals.
A number of fungi, yeast and protozoa have been found to be inactivated or killed by lauric acid or monolaurin. The fungi include several species of ringworm. The yeast reported is Candida albicans. It has been reported that the protozoan parasite Giardia lamblia is also killed by free fatty acids and monoglycerides. Numerous other protozoa were studies with similar finds, but these have not yet been published. Research has shown that Chlamydia trachomatis is inactivated by lauric acid, capric acid and its monoglyceride, monocaprin.
There is a another aspect to the coronary heart disease picture which relates to the initiation of the atheromas that are reported in blocking arteries. Recent research shows that there is a causative role for the herpes virus and cytomegalovirus in the initial formation of atherosclerotic plaques and the reclogging of arteries after angioplasty. What is interesting is that the herpes virus and cytomegalovirus are both inhibited by the antimicrobial lipid monolaurin. Moreover, monolaurin is not formed in the body unless there is a source of lauric acid in the diet. In addition, Chlamydia pneumoniae, a gram-negative bacterium, is another of the micro-organisms suspected of playing a role in atherosclerosis. However, the micro-organism which are most frequently identified as probable causative infecting agents are in the herpes virus family and include cytomegalovirus, type 2 herpes simplex (HSV-2) and Coxsackie B4 virus. The evidence for a causative role for cytomegalovirus in atherosclerosis is the strongest. All members of the herpes virus family are reported to be killed by the fatty acids and monoglycerides found in saturated fatty acids which include approximately 80% of the fatty acids found in coconut oil.
Until now, no one in the mainstream nutrition community seems to have recognized the added potential of antimicrobial lipids in the treatment of HIV-infected or AIDS patients. These antimicrobial fatty acids and their derivatives are essentially nontoxic to man; they are produced in vivo by humans when they ingest those commonly available foods that contain adequate levels of medium-chain fatty acids such as lauric acid. According to the published research, lauric acid is one of the best "inactivating" fatty acids, and its monoglyceride is even more effective than the fatty acid alone. Thus, it would appear to be important to investigate the practical aspects and the potential benefits of an adjunct nutritional support regimen for HIV-infected individual, which will utilize those dietary fats that are sources of known antiviral, antimicrobial and antiprotozoal monoglycerides and fatty acids such as monolaurin and its precursor, lauric acid.
The food industry has long been aware that the functional properties of coconut oil are unsurpassed by other available commercial oils. Unfortunately in the United States during the late 1930's and again during 1980's and 90's, the commercial interests of the domestic fats and oils industry were successful in driving down the usage of coconut oil. As a result, the United States and in other countries where its influence is strong, the manufacturer lost the benefit of lauric oils in its food products. Ultimately, it was the consumer who lost the many health benefits that could result from regular consumption of coconut products. Clinicians and food and nutrition scientists have been unaware of the potential benefits of consuming foods containing coconut and coconut oil, but this is now starting to change.
Excepts from Mary G. Enig, PhD, FACN, Nexus Magazine, Volume 9, Number 2 (February-March 2002), http://www.nexusmagazine.com/coconuts.html and http://www.nexusmagazine.com/coconuts2.html.